Today, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award went to a woman raised in a migrant worker camp who has fought discrimination against poor Dominicans of Haitian descent. It is estimated that 500,000 to 1 million ethnic Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, many living in isolated village slums.
Sonia Pierre’s activism began three decades ago at the age of 13 when she was arrested for leading a march to demand rights for sugar cane cutters. More recently her group has battled to secure education and citizenship for ethnic Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.
“I find inspiration in the life of Mr. Kennedy because I believe that our efforts and his are part of the same fight for equality and justice,” she said during the awards ceremony on Capitol Hill.
Pierre, one of 12 children raised in a one-room portion of a dirt-floor barrack, was praised as a fearless and big-hearted advocate for an oppressed minority in the Caribbean nation.
Robert Kennedy’s brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy said, “Sonia has devoted her life to the cause of equality and justice, two of the most fundamental human rights. My brother believed very deeply in those rights.”
Haitians fleeing poverty provide cheap labor for the Dominican economy, particularly during the sugar cane harvest, Kennedy noted. Many face abuse, harsh living conditions and the constant threat of deportation, he said.
“Because of Sonia, this neglected, impoverished, downtrodden community has greater rights and greater hope for a future where equality and justice are not just ideas, but reality,” the senator said.
Pierre is the 23rd recipient of the award given in honor of the former senator, U.S. attorney general and presidential candidate who was assassinated in 1968.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy speech at the Robert Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award Ceremony, as prepared for delivery, follows:
The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award is one of the many good works of my brother’s foundation. It serves as a reminder to all of us of the vital importance of human rights and the many challenges we face at home and abroad to protect those rights. It also reminds each of us of the power of an individual to make a difference in the lives of many.
It’s a privilege to present this year’s award to one of those individuals, Sonia Pierre. Sonia has devoted her life to the cause of equality and justice, two of the most fundamental human rights. My brother believed very deeply in those rights. As he once said, “We must recognize the full human equality of all our people – before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this not because it is economically advantageous – although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it – although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”
Bobby saw this challenge firsthand in the United States, in the plight of farm workers in our fields, and in the struggles of African Americans for equality. He saw it also in the history of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Poland, and he spoke of the “painful slowness [by which] the United States extended and enlarged the practice of freedom to all of our people.” He spoke out for the “thousands every day denied their full and equal rights under the law” and dedicated his life to do what it took to make equal opportunity a fact, not just a goal.
We see that issue still playing out in the current immigration debate. We’ve long welcomed immigrants as members of our communities, but for decades we have denied them legal status. They’ve been victims of an unfair system—living in fear of deportation, exploited at their worksites, unable to create the better futures they hope for and dream about. Some in power would like to close our borders and isolate America, violating the very principles on which America was founded. Surely we can enact an immigration reform bill that protects our borders, without denying opportunity and basic dignity for all immigrants in the United States.
Sonia Pierre has similarly fought for the rights of a people long denied equality. Her story is the story of the people of two countries, joined by history and geography but separated by economic circumstances: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti remains the least-developed country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest nations in the world. It ranks 154th out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index of the United Nations. It ranks last on Transparency International’s index of corruption. Two-thirds of all Haitians depend on agriculture for their livelihood. They work mainly in small-scale subsistence farming. Deforestation and frequent natural disasters, especially hurricanes, highlight the peril of that dependence.
By contrast, sharing the same island, the Dominican Republic has had economic success – it was one of the fast growing economies in the world in the 1990’s, expanding at an average rate of nearly 8 percent a year from 1996 to 2000. Only a quarter of its citizens live in poverty, compared to 80% in Haiti. The boundary separating the two nations is stark – the brown, deforested lands of Haiti end at the green forests of the Dominican Republic.
The contrasts between these two countries create an unequal dynamic. Haitians fleeing perennial poverty supply cheap labor for the Dominican economy, particularly during the sugar cane harvest. They fill jobs that even the poorest Dominicans won’t do. As a result of this constant cross-border migration, approximately 650,000 Haitians live in Dominican territory, where they face discrimination, abuse, harsh living conditions, and the constant threat of deportation.
It is for the equal rights of these people, many of whom have lived in the Dominican Republic for decades, that Sonia has dedicated her life.
She was born to Haitian parents in 1963 in one of the settlements for sugar cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. She grew up facing first hand the social, economic, legal and cultural barriers that prevent Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent from enjoying their basic human rights.
Her father died when she was two years old. Her mother was a cane cutter, an unusual profession for a woman because of the immense physical stamina required. She raised Sonia and her eleven other children in a one-room portion of a barrack with a dirt floor. Because of the respect her mother had earned among sugar workers, Sonia and her sisters did not have to endure the rape and physical abuse that was commonly inflicted on the migrant community by the authorities.
There was no school for the children, but when Sonia was nine, she and a hundred other children began to attend two hours of classes a day, offered by a local resident. When she was older, she walked several miles each day to attend the nearest school. She refused to be silent in the face of obvious repression. At 13, she was arrested for speaking at a demonstration on behalf of Haitian migrant laborers in the Dominican Republic. The demonstration lasted five days and actually led to improved conditions for some of the workers.
At 16, Sonia helped found the Dominico-Haitians Cultural Center. She later studied social work in Cuba before returning to the Dominican Republic to fight for the rights of her people there – Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Her community needed a champion.
Immigration of Haitians to the Dominican Republic has occurred for generations, but these workers and their descendants are treated as illegal and subjected to abuse and rejection by the Dominican authorities and population.
In fact, the Dominican Constitution grants citizenship to “all persons born in the territory of the Republic with the exception of those born of diplomats or those in transit.” But government policy discriminates against Haitians.
Children born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian immigrants confront enormous difficulties in obtaining a birth certificate that will allow them to attend public schools and have all the political and social rights of Dominican nationals. Even documented Dominicans of Haitian descent face serious discrimination in voting or obtaining the social, health and education services available to Dominican citizens, and may also be deported after arbitrary round-ups by authorities.
Living conditions are deplorable, with precarious housing and no running water or electricity. My brother Bobby’s grandson lived in the country when he served in the Peace Corps, and he remembers the barns with a family living in each stall, and without electricity, running water, or bathrooms.
The situation is especially harsh for women and children. Women are paid less for field work and cannot obtain legal status, because the State Sugar Council recognizes only male Haitian migrant workers in its temporary foreign worker program. Children in the sugar mill towns are also victims of abuse and exploitation, and the lack of official status prevents the community from accessing education, health care and other public services.
Sonia saw all of this first hand. She lived it. And she devoted decades of her life to their search for equality and justice. In 1983, she founded a movement dedicated specifically to the empowerment of women in the community.
The work of her organization, called MUDHA consists of five main programs: education about human rights, assistance in obtaining birth certificates, provision of legal representation, medical assistance, and early childhood education. It provides education for an average of 175 preschool, first and second grade children each year, and has substantially improved the health of women and children in the settlements.
MUDHA has helped more than 5,000 children obtain birth certificates over the past 10 years. It has also been very successful at raising international awareness of the injustices facing the community. MUDHA was a petitioner in a landmark case before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, which for the first time in the court’s history upheld human rights laws prohibiting racial discrimination in nationality and citizenship. The Court also ordered the government to admit all children to its schools, and end the rampant discrimination in education.
So far, this government has refused to comply, but the case has brought increased international awareness to the plight of the community.
Sonia has also strongly opposed the random and arbitrary deportation of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, which are estimated to reach 45,000 a year.
Lily Serrat, of the organization Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, said of Sonia: “I am a better person today for having met, worked, and traveled this road with Sonia Pierre. With certitude, I can affirm that Sonia is one of the most selfless, courageous and compassionate human beings of my generation…Before [seeing her work], I knew of no one who took a firmer stand, no one who risked more, no one with that laser-like focus in dealing with the issues that affected these disenfranchised, mistreated, and voiceless groups of people: the Haitian cane cutters and their Dominican Haitian descendants…In life, we have many heroes and heroines, Sonia is very near the top of my list of heroines.”
Her colleagues compare her to a Nobel Peace Prize winner and call her a hero. One said, “Sonia never held anything back in promoting the human rights of our communities.”
Sonia has personally affected the lives of thousands of her people. She has given voice to their struggles, won landmark legal victories for them, and created new networks to meet their basic needs. Because of Sonia, this neglected, impoverished, downtrodden community has greater rights and greater hope for a future where equality and justice are not just ideas, but reality.
Her struggle is captured in an excerpt from the Dominican poet Pedro Mir’s famous poem, There is a Country in the World, which he wrote about the sugar cane cutters in these words:
Some will think that in this fluvial country in which earth blossoms,
and spills over and cracks like a bursting vein,
where day has its true victory,
the farmers will go amazed with their spades
to cultivate singing
their strip of ownership.
This love will shatter its solitary innocence.
. . .
There is a country in the world where a farmer, cut down,
withered and bitter dies and bites barefoot his defeated dust,
lacking enough earth for his harsh death.
Listen closely! Lacking earth to go to sleep in.
It is a small and beleaguered country.
Simply sad, sad and grim, sad and bitter.
Sonia overcame immense personal hardship to become the voice and the champion for hundreds of thousands of others. Her courage gives us all hope. As they say in Creole, kenbe fem – “keep the faith.”
Eventually, because of Sonia, there will be equality and justice for all. She has been unique in her vision of a Dominican Republic that embraces its entire people equally. And for all of us, she is a model for what it means to make a difference.
It is an honor now to join Ethel in presenting Sonia Pierre with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for 2006.